R.I. Senate passes gun bills amid dramatic debates, protests

Gun Rights

PROVIDENCE — A bill to limit gun magazine capacity to 10 rounds failed to make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which deadlocked in a 6-to-6 vote.

But in a highly unusual move, the Senate’s Democratic leaders promptly took up the House version of the bill for immediate consideration and passed it by a vote of 25 to 11, sending it to Governor Daniel J. McKee, who has vowed to sign it into law.

The Senate also voted 31 to 5 for bills to prohibit the open carry of long guns in public and raise the age from 18 to 21 to buy long guns and ammunition Tuesday night, after a day of what that amounted to a dramatic game of political chess.

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On Tuesday, opponents of the gun legislation chanted in the hallway and supporters lined the front row of seats in the committee room as the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 8 to 4 for the bill raising the age from 18 to 21. The committee then voted 9 to 3 for a bill that would prohibit the open carry of long guns.

Supporters and opponents of gun legislation gather at the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting room Tuesday at the Rhode Island State House.Edward Fitzpatrick

But the committee split evenly on the bill to prohibit magazines of more than 10 rounds.

Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, a North Providence Democrat who has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, joined Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey and Senate Minority Whip Maryellen Goodwin in backing the bill while sitting in on the committee to vote ex-officio.

“I believe it should go to the Senate floor,” Ruggerio explained after the vote.

But Democratic Senators Stephen R. Archambault, Leonidas P. Raptakis, John P. Burke, and Frank S. Lombardi joined Republican senators in voting against the bill.

So the Senate version of the legislation remained stuck in committee, effectively killing it for this year’s legislative session.

Reaction came immediately from both ends of the political spectrum.

Matt Brown, a progressive Democratic candidate for governor, issued a statement, saying, “It’s shameful that with a Democratic super-majority in the Senate we can’t get a basic piece of gun safety legislation out of committee. We need to get the conservative Democrats who opposed this legislation out of office.” He urged those backing gun legislation “to knock doors against the many conservative Democrats in our legislature who care more about maintaining their A ratings from the NRA than about keeping our communities and schools safe.”

Pat Cortelessa, a Republican candidate for secretary of state, tweeted, “Congratulations to the Rhode Island judiciary committee for allowing me to keep my M 1 carbine 15 round magazine. The original clip that was made for the semi automatic rifle from the 1950s.”

But one Twitter user told Cortellessa, “You jumped the gun.”

When the full Senate convened soon after the committee meeting, McCaffrey, a Warwick Democrat, moved for immediate consideration of the House version of the magazine bill, which had passed the full House during a five hour session on Friday.

Senator Gordon E. Rogers, a Foster Republican, objected. But his objection was overruled by a vote of 24 to 11 – just barely crossing the two-thirds threshold required to proceed with immediate consideration, which is usually reserved for uncontroversial legislation.

Senator Elaine J. Morgan, a Hopkinton Republican, exclaimed, “Outrageous!” Senator Jessica De la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican, later said it was “dishonest” of the Senate leadership to “subvert” the committee process to pass the bill.

After concluding the rest of its daily calendar, the Senate took up the gun bills as Second Amendment advocates outside the chamber chanted “We will not comply!”

When gun advocates shouted from the Senate gallery, Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin asked that the gallery be cleared if the outbursts continued. Later, when the Senate voted for the magazine capacity bill, the gallery erupted with shouts of “Vote them out!” And sherriff’s deputies cleared the gallery.

Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Cynthia Coyne, a Barrington Democrat who is a former Rhode Island state trooper, urged her colleagues to support the 10-found limit, saying the bill does not take away right to own a gun but limits access to “a tool whose only purpose to is to inflict massive death and destruction as quickly as possible.” She said the bill is backed by all the state’s general officers and “the law enforcement community.”

But Senator Frank A. Ciccone III, a Providence Democrat, raised questions about the bill, saying, “Is this going to stop the illegal flow of guns? No, it’s not.” He offered an amendment that would add a “grandfather clause” for the limit on magazine capacity. But senators rejected that amendment by a vote of 11 to 24.

Senator Jeanine Calkin, a Warwick Democrat, noted that Attorney General Peter F. Neronha has said that a grandfather clause would render the bill meaningless and unenforceable.

De la Cruz said Neronha “has politicized his office,” and “it’s disgusting.” She said other states have grandfather clauses for their limits on magazine capacity, and she called for Rhode Island to instead “fortify schools.”

Senator Stephen R. Archambault, a Smithfield Democrat, said the bill would “make criminals out of law abiding issues,” and he said the 10-round limit was arbitrary.

Coyne argued that the 10 round limit is not arbitrary. She said it was “the law of the land” from 1994 to 2004, and has become “de facto standard” for the industry and manufacturers could readily comply.

De la Cruz argued for an amendment that would exempt domestic violence victims form the magazine capacity ban. “A firearm is the great equalizer,” she said. “I would not be able to fend off an attack from someone bigger and stronger.”

But Coyne contended that there is no evidence that gun ownership increases safety of women. In fact, she said, the opposite is true because women in homes with firearms are at greater risk of homicide.

That amendment also failed by a vote of 11 to 24.

Senator Frank S. Lombardi, a Cranston Democrat, said he voted against the magazine capacity bill because it involves “a fundamental right under the Second Amendment.” He questioned how lawmakers would respond to proposals involving other constitutional rights such as the First Amendment or the right to a jury.

But Senator Meghan E. Kallman, a Pawtucket Democrat, noted that child labor and slavery used to be legal. “It is our job to change our laws when they no longer serve us,” she said.

The House Judiciary Committee voted for all three bills last week. As in the Senate committee, the closest vote was on the magazine capacity bill, which passed 10 to 8, with House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and House Majority Leader Christopher R. Blazejewski sitting in ex-officio to vote for the bill, while House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi voted against it.

On Friday, the House voted 43-26 to limit magazine capacity, 52-16 to raise the age for buyers from 18 to 21, and 53-16 to ban open carrying of long guns.

As they enter the home stretch of this year’s legislative session, the state House and Senate showed no signs of moving forward on a proposed ban on assault-style weapons or a bill to strengthen safe firearm storage laws.

This article has been updated with additional information from the Senate vote on gun legislation.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.

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